Massachusetts Supreme Judicial / Appeals Courts

No. SJC-09642. Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts
November 7, 2006. December 22, 2006.


Attorney at Law, Admission to practice, Educational
requirements. Board of Bar Examiners. Supreme Judicial
Court, Membership in the bar.

Petition filed in the Supreme Judicial Court for the county
of Suffolk on February 28, 2005.

The case was considered by Greaney, J., as was a motion
for reconsideration.

Gregory C. Osakwe, pro se.

Robert J. Muldoon, Jr. (Katy E. Koski with him) for Board
of Bar Examiners.


The respondent, Board of Bar Examiners (board), denied the
application of the petitioner, Gregory C. Osakwe, to sit
for the Massachusetts bar examination. The board found that
Osakwe, who had his initial legal training in his native
Nigeria, failed to satisfy the educational qualifications
set out in S.J.C. Rule 3:01, as amended, 425 Mass. 1331
(1997), which governs admission to the bar of the
Commonwealth. Under S.J.C. Rule 3:01, § 3.4, as
appearing in 382 Mass. 754 (1981), an applicant who does
not hold a juris doctor (J.D.) degree from a law school
accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA) may
nonetheless sit for the bar examination if he demonstrates
that he has obtained a “legal education equivalent, in the
Board’s opinion, to that provided in law schools approved
by the [ABA].” We have reviewed the petitioner’s
educational and other qualifications and find that he
possesses a legal education sufficient to satisfy the rule.
We therefore direct the board to allow him to sit for the
bar examination.

1. Background. Osakwe graduated from the University of
Nigeria with a bachelor of laws (LL.B.) degree in
1990.[fn1] He then attended the Nigerian Law School in
Abuja, where he passed the Nigerian bar examination and was
called to the bar of the Federal Republic of Nigeria in
December, 1990. Osakwe later moved to Trinidad and
Tobago.[fn2] In 1996, he earned a legal education
certificate from the Hugh Wooding Law School and was
admitted to practice in the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago.
Osakwe then moved to Connecticut, where he earned a master
of laws (LL.M.) degree from the University of Connecticut
School of Law in May, 2001. Subsequently, Osakwe was
permitted to sit for and passed the New York bar
examination.[fn3] He was admitted to practice in New York in
February, 2003. In June of that same year, he was admitted
to practice before the United States District Court for the
District of Connecticut. Osakwe presently practices Federal
immigration law in Connecticut and New York.

In June, 2004, Osakwe applied for admission to the
Massachusetts bar. In accordance with the board’s
requirements, he submitted (among other items) certificates
evidencing his bar admissions, a copy of his Nigerian LL.B.
diploma, and a satisfactory score report for the multistate
professional responsibility examination (MPRE). In a reply
letter, the board informed Osakwe that, in its estimation,
he lacked the requisite academic qualifications to sit for
the examination. The board informed Osakwe that before
being allowed to sit for the examination he would first
have to obtain a J.D. degree.

Osakwe filed a complaint for administrative review in the
Superior Court, which was dismissed. He then filed the
instant petition in the Supreme Judicial Court for Suffolk
County. A single justice dismissed the petition and denied
a motion for reconsideration, both without hearing. Osakwe
appealed to the full court.

2. Qualifications for taking the bar examination. Admission
to the bar of the Commonwealth is governed by G. L. c. 221,
§ 37, and S.J.C. Rule 3:01. Petitions for admission
are filed in the county court and referred to the board to
ascertain the qualifications of applicants. S.J.C. Rule
3:01, § 1.3, as appearing in 382 Mass. 753 (1981).
The board examines an applicant’s education and moral
character. Those satisfying its standards may sit for the
bar examination and, if successful, are admitted to
practice. S.J.C. Rule 3:01, § 5.1, as appearing in
411 Mass. 1321 (1992). The educational requirements to sit
for the examination include a high school diploma and a
college degree (or the equivalent), and a J.D. degree from
an ABA-accredited law school. S.J.C. Rule 3:01, § 3,
as amended, 399 Mass. 1213 (1987). Only the last
qualification is at issue here.

Osakwe seeks to sit for the examination under the exception
to the J.D. requirement for foreign-trained lawyers found
in S.J.C. Rule 3:01, § 3.4.[fn4] The board has
issued guidelines to applicants discussing how it applies
these rules.[fn5] See Massachusetts Board of Bar Examiners,
Information Relating to Admission of Attorneys in
Massachusetts at 7-8 (Mar. 2006) (guidelines). In general,
the board “may” permit “[g]raduates of the common-law
faculties of law schools in foreign countries (other than
Canada) whose jurisprudence rests upon the common-law
tradition” to sit for the examination.[fn6] Id. at 8. The
board may condition its permission on “successful
completion of such academic legal study at an ABA-approved
law school as the [b]oard may require,” which study may
include courses taken as part of a master of laws degree.
In its evaluation of educational qualifications the board
may also consider factors “including, but not limited to,
graduate legal studies other than those in Master of Law
programs in ABA-approved law schools, admission to practice
in other American jurisdictions, and length and nature of
practice or teaching in an American jurisdiction.” Id.

“Although the initial scrutiny of the qualifications of
each applicant is delegated by statute and by rule to the
board, we retain the inherent and exclusive jurisdiction
over any decision to admit an attorney to the practice of
law in this Commonwealth.” Wei Jia v. Board of Bar
Examiners, 427 Mass. 777, 782 (1998) (Wei Jia), citing G. L.
c. 221, § 37 (petition for examination for admission
as attorney), and S.J.C. Rule 3:01. This jurisdiction
extends to preliminary steps, most importantly the decision
to allow an applicant to sit for the bar examination.
“Accordingly, we review the legal education of the
petitioner de novo, and make our own determination whether
he has met the requirements of S.J.C. Rule 3:01, §
3.4.” Id. at 782-783. We have generally given deference to
the board’s expertise and experience in applying the rules.
See id. at 782. On occasion we have not agreed with the
board’s recommendation and gone so far as to grant a waiver
of a rule. See, e.g., Matter of Tocci, 413 Mass. 542, 546
(1992) (Tocci) (court has equitable power to waive
requirements for admission); Novak v. Board of Bar
Examiners, 397 Mass. 270, 274 (1986) (Novak) (waiving
S.J.C. Rule 3:01, § 3.3). Osakwe does not seek such
a waiver. Rather, he asks us to find that his education
satisfies the exception in S.J.C. Rule 3:01, § 3.4,
and permit him to sit for the examination.

We conduct our review mindful of the purpose of the
educational requirement for sitting for the bar
examination. As we have said, “[T]here is clearly a direct
rational connection between the requirement of graduation
from an accredited law school and an applicant’s fitness to
practice law. The ABA standards relating to the
accreditation of law schools provide assurance that
applicants to the bar `have experienced a generally uniform
level of appropriate legal education.'” Tocci, supra at
548, quoting Novak, supra at 274. Thus, when we review the
credentials of those educated abroad, the ABA standards
provide a touchstone for the analysis. “[T]here must be a
recognizable and significant resemblance between a foreign
applicant’s complete legal education and the legal
education that generally is provided to a recipient of a
juris doctor degree in a law school approved by the ABA.”
Wei Jia, supra at 783.

One might argue that we should dispense with a rigorous
application of the educational requirement for those with
significant education and experience in foreign common-law
jurisdictions. This would allow more candidates to sit for
the bar examination and would make the results of that
examination our primary mode of assessing an applicant’s
qualifications. In cases like Osakwe’s, where the applicant
clearly has significant legal education, we might presume
that the bar examination will adequately assess the
particular knowledge of American and Massachusetts law we
require of attorneys. As it stands now, we in effect allow
the ABA, through its accreditation process, to control a
primary element of an evaluation that rests in our
exclusive jurisdiction. Those who do not satisfy the
requirements of an ABA-accredited school are almost
completely excluded from our consideration.

The argument to dispense with a rigorous application of
the educational requirement, however, does not fully
capture the different purposes served by the bar
examination and the educational requirement. The
examination’s main purpose is to subject all candidates to a
uniform objective evaluation. It also provides evidence
that, faced with novel factual situations, candidates can
apply legal principles quickly and correctly. This is, we
think, a necessary but not a sufficient qualification for
the practice of law in this Commonwealth. The bar
examination is not simply a summary examination of topics
covered in law school; nor is law school simply a prolonged
preparation for the examination. The bar examination alone
cannot substitute for the intellectual development and
professional acculturation that form the basis of the legal
education requirement. Nor can the bar examination we
administer, as rigorous and thorough as it may be, cover any
of its topics with the depth and subtlety required in
accredited law schools.

3. Analysis. As we said in Wei Jia, supra at 784, “Our
requirement of an equivalent legal education is not to test
the intellectual capabilities of an attorney who has
graduated from a foreign institution, but to examine the
applicant’s familiarity with the fundamentals of American
law. We do so because there is a strong public interest in
ensuring that the license to practice law in this
Commonwealth be granted to applicants only on a reasonable
showing that they have demonstrated that familiarity.” Our
analysis of Osakwe’s application thus will consider whether
he has gained from education and experience the requisite
familiarity with the fundamentals of American law. The rule
and the board guidelines offer a useful guide. They suggest
that we think about this “familiarity with the fundamentals
of American law” in two ways. First, there is an evaluation
of exposure to the common-law tradition — its
topical division of the law, its principles of reasoning,
and its basic rules. We shall refer to this portion of the
analysis as the “general” evaluation. As to that general
evaluation, the guidelines provide that the board will look
to see if an applicant has studied in the common-law
faculty of a school in a country “whose jurisprudence rests
upon the common-law tradition.” Guidelines, supra at 8.
Then there is an evaluation of exposure to American law
— the “particular” evaluation. Recognizing that this
requirement of particular exposure to American law may be a
frequently encountered deficiency for foreign-educated
applicants, S.J.C. Rule 3:01, § 3.4, permits the
board to require additional course work.[fn7] The
guidelines suggest that the board generally will require
such courses to be not in the basic common-law topics, but
in particularly American subjects, for example, American
constitutional law, Federal courts and jurisprudence, and
the Uniform Commercial Code. Guidelines, supra at 8. The
board also considers other evidence of familiarity with
American law, including a review of courses completed for
credit in obtaining an LL.M. degree from an American law
school, admission to practice in other United States
jurisdictions, and the length and nature of practice or
teaching in other United States jurisdictions. Id.

This evaluation of a candidate’s general and particular
qualifications is the way we examined the application in
Wei Jia, supra, the most recent case in which we considered
the requirements of S.J.C. Rule 3:01, § 3.4. In that
case, we evaluated the credentials of an applicant who
first trained in a Chinese law school. He then received
advanced degrees from Tulane Law School and was admitted to
the bar in both Louisiana and New York. Id. at 778-779.
Although he spent a significant amount of time studying at
an American law school, Wei Jia’s courses at Tulane focused
almost exclusively on international business transactions,
and included only one of the basic J.D. courses,
contracts.[fn8] Id. at 784. In rejecting Wei Jia’s
petition, we observed:

“If greater similarities existed between the law of the
People’s Republic of China and our law; if the former were
based on the English common-law system, which it is not;
if the petitioner, as a graduate student at Tulane, had
taken for credit and passed more of the courses required
of a juris doctor degree, which he has not; if the
petitioner had engaged in the practice of law in Louisiana
or New York for some substantial period of time, which he
has not, this would be a different case.”

Id. at 787-788. Osakwe presents one particular example of
the “different case” to which we alluded in Wei Jia, supra.
All of the reasons listed for denying Wei Jia’s petition
suggest that Osakwe’s petition should be allowed.

Nigeria, like Massachusetts, has a legal system derived
from the English common-law tradition. Students who train
in Nigerian law schools are educated in that
tradition.[fn9] A review of Osakwe’s transcripts reveals
that he has taken a wide array of courses, many of them
offered as part of the core curriculum at ABA-approved law
schools. His transcript from the University of Nigeria
shows courses in property, torts, contracts, evidence,
constitutional law, land law, equity, jurisprudence,
company law, international law, and commercial law. His
transcript from the Nigerian Law School shows further
courses in civil procedure, criminal procedure, company
law, evidence, and the completion of a general paper on law
and ethics. Wei Jia, in contrast, had completed none of
these courses.

We recognize that a candidate cannot satisfy our
educational requirement simply by showing that he has taken
courses named, for example, “property” and “contracts.”
There must be further evidence that these courses expose
students to rules, principles, and modes of reasoning
similar to those in ABA-accredited law schools. Osakwe has
submitted course descriptions from his Nigerian schools that
convince us that his initial common-law training was
similar not just in name, but also in substance, to that
found in ABA-approved schools. This is not to say that
Osakwe’s education was the same as that of lawyers with an
American J.D., in that his common-law courses in Nigeria
would not have delved into the particular way that the
tradition has developed here. We are, however, satisfied
that Osakwe’s education has given him sufficient exposure
to the common-law tradition to satisfy the “general” portion
of our analysis under S.J.C. Rule 3:01, § 3.4.

Osakwe has also shown that he has sufficient education in
and exposure to American law to satisfy our “particular”
analysis under S.J.C. Rule 3:01, § 3.4. Our
conclusion on this point is based in part on Osakwe’s LL.M.
training at the University of Connecticut School of Law.
His transcript from that program shows graded course work
in American civil procedure, American criminal procedure,
immigration law, Federal taxation, torts, and United States
law and legal institutions. In contrast, Wei Jia audited
his common-law classes, and his graded LL.M. courses
consisted entirely of international business law classes.
Wei Jia, supra at 784. Whatever deficiencies there may have
been in Osakwe’s exposure to American law in particular
were, we think, cured by his LL.M. program in a way that
Wei Jia’s deficiencies distinctly were not.[fn10]

Additionally, we find Osakwe’s admission and practice in
other American jurisdictions to be relevant to the
particular analysis and helpful (although not conclusive)
to his claim. In Wei Jia, supra at 788, we stated that “if
the petitioner had engaged in the practice of law in
Louisiana or New York for some substantial period of time .
. . this would be a different case.” In contrast to Wei Jia,
the record evidence here shows that Osakwe was not only
admitted to the New York bar and the Federal bar in the
District of Connecticut, but that he also has actively
practiced law in those courts for the past three

Our evaluation of Osakwe’s educational qualifications has
revealed that he has sufficient general exposure to the
common-law tradition and specific knowledge of American
law. We hold that he satisfies the equivalence requirements
described in S.J.C. Rule 3:01, § 3.4. We refer
Osakwe’s application to the board with instructions that he
be allowed to sit for the bar examination.

So ordered.

[fn1] The bachelor of laws (LL.B., from the Latin “legum
baccalaureus”) degree, technically an undergraduate degree,
is the principal law degree in many common-law countries,
including Nigeria. In the United States, it has largely
been replaced by the juris doctor (J.D.) degree, which is a
graduate degree. This difference in name and form masks a
substantive similarity in legal education. Students earning
the LL.B. degree may have undertaken the same focused study
in law as those earning the J.D. degree in the United
States. Our analysis here focuses on the nature and quality
of Osakwe’s education, not the formal title of his degrees.

[fn2] Although the record is unclear on this point, the
legal education certificate from the Hugh Wooding Law
School seems to indicate successful completion of Trinidad
and Tobago’s equivalent of the bar examination. Osakwe’s
certificate of admission in that jurisdiction is dated two
months after the certificate. Osakwe stated at oral
argument that the certificate is required of all
foreign-trained lawyers seeking admission in Trinidad and

[fn3] The board sent two letters to Osakwe, one dated June
24, 2004, and the other, July 9, 2004. Apparently Osakwe
communicated by telephone with the board’s executive
director in the interim, and provided further information
about his legal education. It is unclear from the record,
however, what exactly he sent or said to the board during
that exchange. It is also unclear what further
investigation (if any) was conducted by the board. Although
he did submit his transcript from the University of
Connecticut and certificates of bar admissions, Osakwe does
not appear to have initially submitted to the board the
transcripts and course descriptions from his Nigerian
schools, and the general discussion of the Nigerian legal
system and education which are presently part of the
record. The board does not contend that we should not
consider this material. We find these items to be important
to a fair and thorough analysis of Osakwe’s qualifications.

[fn4] S.J.C. Rule 3:01, § 3.4, as appearing in 382
Mass. 754 (1981), provides:

“Foreign Law Schools. Any applicant who received his
legal education at a law school located outside of any
State, district or territory of the United States shall
have pre-legal education equivalent, in the [b]oard’s
opinion, to that set forth in subsections 3.1 and 3.2 and
legal education equivalent, in the [b]oard’s opinion, to
that provided in law schools approved by the American Bar
Association. Before permitting such an applicant to take
the law examination, the [b]oard in its discretion may,
as a condition to such permission, require such applicant
to take such further legal studies as the [b]oard may
designate at a law school approved by the American Bar

[fn5] We appended the guidelines, entitled Important
Information for Attorneys from Foreign Countries, Applying
Under General Rule 3:01, Section 3, to our opinion in Wei
Jia v. Board of Bar Examiners, 427 Mass. 777, 789 (1998)
(Wei Jia). The most recent version of the guidelines does
not differ in substance from the Wei Jia guidelines. See
Massachusetts Board of Bar Examiners, Information Relating
to Admission of Attorneys in Massachusetts at 7-8 (Mar.
2006) (guidelines).

[fn6] Graduates of common-law faculties in Canada are
permitted to sit for the examination as a matter of course.
See guidelines, supra at 7.

[fn7] Additional course work is appropriately required of
applicants who have sufficient common-law education to
satisfy the general analysis, but may be lacking particular
knowledge of American law. As we have explained, “Requiring
an applicant to complete a juris doctor degree may impose a
hardship on some foreign law graduates, and we do not
require all foreign law graduates to receive such a degree
before they may take the Massachusetts bar examination. But
we do require that each foreign law graduate who seeks
admission to the bar demonstrate that she or he has
received an appropriate legal education in the fundamentals
of American law.” Wei Jia, supra at 787.

[fn8] The petitioner in the Wei Jia decision had apparently
audited several other basic J.D. courses, and had taken a
brief “introductory course” in American law. We wrote that
“[t]he three-week introductory course to the American legal
system that he completed is not a substitute for a semester
or more of study and examination in the substantive areas
surveyed in that course.” Wei Jia, supra at 784. We also
noted that “the `audit’ of a course is not equivalent to
enrolling in a course, taking an examination, and receiving
a passing grade. The board, and this court, would be hard
pressed to evaluate a candidate who claimed to have
`audited’ courses where the candidate’s familiarity with
the subject matter has not been tested.” Id.

[fn9] Osakwe has in fact attended four different common-law
faculties — two in Nigeria, a third in Trinidad and
Tobago, and a fourth in Connecticut — earning three
degrees and a certificate.

[fn10] We reject the board’s argument that Osakwe is
unqualified to sit for the bar examination because, in
pursuit of his LL.M. degree, he “completed courses in only
two of the eighteen subjects that applicants are required
to be familiar with when taking the law examination.” Not
only does this ignore the fact that Osakwe took courses in
five of these topics as part of his Nigerian law degree, it
also implies that all candidates for the Massachusetts bar
holding an American J.D. degree have taken these courses.
But much of the preparation done by those sitting for the
bar examination involves learning topics not usually
studied in J.D. programs.

[fn11] The board contests the relevance of Osakwe’s legal
practice experience by stating that it was “limited to `the
practice of Immigration Law and Federal Law.'” The board
may be relying on language in Wei Jia, supra at 785, where
we stated that “[w]hile admission to practice in other
jurisdictions is not wholly irrelevant, in this case [Wei
Jia] has never actually practiced. . . .” We find the extent
and nature of Osakwe’s practice substantively different
from Wei Jia’s. Wei Jia “never actually practiced,” as
Osakwe has.